Spies, Lies, and Whistleblowers” — Subversion chapter

Background to subversion

At this time MI5 was still using the same cri­ter­ia for record­ing indi­vidu­al sub­vers­ives and their sym­path­isers as was set out by Home Sec­ret­ary Dav­id Max­well-Fyfe in 1952.  He called on the ser­vices to identi­fy any indi­vidu­al engaged in under­min­ing Par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy, nation­al secur­ity and/or the eco­nom­ic well-being of the UK by viol­ent, indus­tri­al or polit­ic­al means.  In fact, many would argue that groups who used only polit­ic­al means to get their point across were merely exer­cising their demo­crat­ic rights.  In fact, MI5 used pho­tos of demon­stra­tions, cop­ies of elec­tion lists and even lists of sub­scribers to rad­ic­al left-wing book clubs as indic­at­ors of sub­vers­ive sym­pathy and mem­ber­ship.  Of course, the world was a very dif­fer­ent place when I joined the sec­tion, almost 40 years after Maxwell-Fyfe’s declar­a­tion, not least because of the dis­in­teg­ra­tion of the Soviet Uni­on and its East­ern bloc allies. 

From Maxwell-Fyfe’s state­ment to Par­lia­ment, which was nev­er made law, MI5 and sub­sequent gov­ern­ments used to argue that all mem­bers of cer­tain parties –such as the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain (CPGB) or later the bewil­der­ing array of Trot­sky­ists, with names like the Inter­na­tion­al Marx­ist Group (IMG), Work­ers’ Revolu­tion­ary Party (WRP) Major and Minor, Revolu­tion­ary Com­mun­ist Party (RCP) and Revolu­tion­ary Com­mun­ist Group (RCG), anarch­ists and the extreme right — were threats to the secur­ity of the state or our demo­crat­ic sys­tem.  This in itself is a con­ten­tious pro­pos­i­tion.  None of these Trot­sky­ist groups was cul­tiv­at­ing East­ern bloc fin­ance or build­ing bombs in smoky back rooms, but were instead using legit­im­ate demo­crat­ic meth­ods to make their case, such as stand­ing in elec­tions, organ­ising demon­stra­tions and ‘edu­cat­ing’ the work­ers.  They cer­tainly had no alle­gi­ance to a for­eign power, the primary rais­on d’etre for the invest­ig­a­tion of sub­ver­sion, because, unlike the Com­mun­ist Party, they abhorred the East­ern bloc.

Since MI5 was effect­ively invest­ig­at­ing indi­vidu­als for hold­ing opin­ions the gov­ern­ment did not like — a very un-Brit­ish pos­i­tion — it was always at pains to point out that it took its respons­ib­il­it­ies with regard to human rights very ser­i­ously, although not ser­i­ously enough to ensure that these activ­it­ies were reg­u­lated by a leg­al frame­work.  All the service’s phone taps pri­or to the passing of the Inter­cep­tion of Com­mu­nic­a­tions Act (IOCA) in 1985 were unlaw­ful because there was no legis­la­tion gov­ern­ing the inter­cep­tion of communications1.  In fact, the Home Office War­rants (HOWs) used to jus­ti­fy phone tap­ping and cov­ert entry were so vague as to be mean­ing­less.  There was cer­tainly not enough inform­a­tion for the min­is­ter sign­ing a war­rant to make an informed decision about let­ting the ser­vice break into an individual’s home or bug their phone.

Dur­ing pub­li­city inter­views for her book, Open Secret, the former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton demon­strated that she at least was far from sens­it­ive to the illeg­al­ity of the activ­it­ies of the service:

I still thought the essence of the Cold War and spies and stuff was fun,’ she said.  ‘You know, going around listen­ing to people’s tele­phones and open­ing their mail and stuff.”

The Human Rights Act (HRA) provides a num­ber of reas­ons why a secur­ity ser­vice is allowed to invade the pri­vacy of an indi­vidu­al.  The stand­ard is ‘neces­sary in a demo­cracy’.  It does not include ‘fun’.  Dame Stella also admit­ted that files were opened on indi­vidu­als who posed no threat to the state, under­min­ing the author­it­ies’ pre­vi­ous assur­ances that files were only opened on mem­bers of sub­vers­ive organ­isa­tions or their sym­path­isers.  This means that MI5 mon­it­or­ing included legit­im­ate polit­ic­al activists: 

You can say from the pos­i­tion of 2001 that files were opened on people who were not act­ively threat­en­ing the state, but nev­er­the­less, in the con­text of those days, I think the files that were opened fit­ted that defin­i­tion of sub­ver­sion.  I think, in the past, some of our pre­de­cessors may have been a bit over enthu­si­ast­ic (in open­ing files), but by the time I got there we were very focused on this defin­i­tion and what we were doing.”

She tries to wriggle off the hook by refer­ring to ‘that defin­i­tion of sub­ver­sion’ as if it some­how changed over the years.  The truth is, it did not.  In August 1997 Dav­id dis­closed in The Mail on Sunday that files were opened on such indi­vidu­als as Jack Straw and Peter Man­del­son.  Either they were inno­cent vic­tims of MI5’s over-zeal­ous invest­ig­a­tion of sub­vers­ives, in which case they should demand an explan­a­tion from the ser­vice and should estab­lish how many oth­ers were wrong­fully invest­ig­ated, or they really were a threat to our nation­al secur­ity, in which case the Brit­ish people have a right to know.

In fact, MI5 devoted such sig­ni­fic­ant resources to sub­vers­ive groups from the 1940s to 1993, when sub­ver­sion was finally down­graded, that F2 claimed to know more about the fin­ances of the Com­mun­ist Party of Great Bri­tain (CPGB) than the Party did itself!  In communism’s hey­day from the 1950s to the 1970s, around 60 desk officers – each with a num­ber of sup­port staff – spied on the CPGB alone, although F Branch had dwindled to around nine or ten desk officers and agent run­ners, plus around 20–30 sup­port and sec­ret­ari­al staff by the time I arrived in 1991. 

As pub­lic sup­port for com­mun­ism began to fade dur­ing the 1970s and 80s, F2 had become increas­ingly con­cerned with Mil­it­ant Tend­ency (MT) because of its entry­ist or ‘False Flag’ tac­tics, in which MT mem­bers who had infilt­rated the Labour party stood as can­did­ates for Par­lia­ment and oth­er bod­ies without declar­ing their asso­ci­ation with Mil­it­ant.  How­ever, by the early 1990s the Soviet bloc had col­lapsed; the age­ing CPGB had become the Demo­crat­ic Left, and MT was on the point of abandon­ing entry­ism.  As a res­ult, every­one in F2 believed that there was no jus­ti­fic­a­tion to con­tin­ue the invest­ig­a­tion of sub­ver­sion– with the excep­tion of Dir­ect­or F, the man in charge of the Branch.  He seemed to have no idea that the work of MI5 should be in defence of demo­crat­ic val­ues.  He was rather more con­cerned about his stand­ing in the ser­vice peck­ing order along­side oth­er MI5 dir­ect­ors.  He saw any reduc­tion in his branch’s resources as an attack on his power base in MI5, so he fiercely res­isted any attempts to trans­fer his staff to oth­er branches. 

In addi­tion, MI5 man­age­ment wanted to retain per­son­nel so it would not need to take on extra staff, in the event of it win­ning the lead in the invest­ig­a­tion of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA (PIRA) from the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB).  That was where the Social­ist Work­ers Party (SWP) came in.

My role against the SWP

To my dis­may, as I had always been com­pletely apolit­ic­al, my first post­ing after the induc­tion course was to F Branch, the counter-sub­ver­sion sec­tion.  Dur­ing my recruit­ment, I had been told that MI5 no longer took much interest in sub­ver­sion, instead focus­sing increas­ingly on threats such as ter­ror­ism.  I had there­fore hoped to go straight to a counter-ter­ror­ism branch or, fail­ing that, to K Branch (counter-espi­on­age) where I could use my Rus­si­an.  It was some con­sol­a­tion to find out sub­sequently that MI5 had a policy of post­ing those deemed to be “clear thinkers” to this sec­tion, because of the polit­ic­al sens­it­iv­ity of its work.  Per­haps we should infer that the counter-ter­ror­ism branches were staffed by muddled thinkers?

In Feb­ru­ary 1991 I joined F2.  The sec­tion was tucked away in a little-known MI5 build­ing in Bolton Street, May­fair.  The office was a clas­sic, run-down civil ser­vice affair, with battered old wooden desks, lime green wall paint and thread­bare car­pets.  The sec­tion when I joined had no com­puter sys­tem; all its records were on paper, a fact which sur­prised me, as eas­ily access­ible inform­a­tion is essen­tial to an intel­li­gence ser­vice.  This also meant that all my work had to be writ­ten out in longhand and passed to my sec­ret­ary for typ­ing, before com­ing back to me for cor­rec­tions.  Hav­ing worked in oth­er offices with com­puters, I found this all pain­fully slow.

My ‘job title’ was F2B/5, and I was in charge of a small team invest­ig­at­ing the SWP.  Dav­id joined F Branch a year later as F2C/7, to study anarch­ists, com­mun­ists and extreme right-wing­ers.  Dav­id and I met in F2 but we didn’t start going out with each oth­er until spring 1993.  Our eyes met across a crowded oper­a­tions room, he always likes to joke.

All new MI5 officers are ‘ment­ored’ by a more exper­i­enced officer, usu­ally of the same grade, over a peri­od of six months.  Some new recruits are lucky.  Dav­id had Glyn Michaels, my boss at the time, who took his ment­or­ing duties very ser­i­ously.  I was unlucky.  I had Alis­on Pom­de­terre, who appeared com­pletely unin­ter­ested in the ment­or­ing pro­cess.  After only a month of ment­or­ing, I took over the desk and the man­age­ment of three cler­ic­al work­ers who did the painstak­ing work of form­ally identi­fy­ing “sub­vers­ives”.  

Like any oth­er job, the MI5 desk officer has an IN tray and an OUT tray and pro­cesses inform­a­tion.  (Officers always also made great use of the PENDING tray for any­thing that might look dif­fi­cult.)  The dif­fer­ence between MI5 and a nor­mal job is that the inform­a­tion comes in the form of reports from agents in the field or GCHQ ‘sigint’.  

As well as routinely pro­cessing vast quant­it­ies of Lin­en (product from tele­phone taps), CHALIS (let­ters), and source (agent) reports, in my first year in F2 I was tasked to research each area of the SWP’s activ­it­ies: fin­ance, mem­ber­ship, stu­dent num­bers, and indus­tri­al rela­tions among oth­ers, in order to assess wheth­er the party was a threat to nation­al secur­ity.  It was a moot point wheth­er the SWP had ever posed a real­ist­ic threat to the state.  But after I’d car­ried out months of painstak­ing research, I was in no doubt.  Although indi­vidu­al mem­bers of the party were com­mit­ted, the SWP was small, rel­at­ively poor, and their polit­ics fell out­side MI5’s cri­ter­ia for invest­ig­a­tion – they neither had links to a for­eign power, like the Com­mun­ists, nor did they prac­tice entry­ism, like Mil­it­ant Tend­ency.  Their policies advoc­ated edu­cat­ing people so that they could take part in a demo­crat­ic move­ment to replace the exist­ing polit­ic­al sys­tem.  This was hardly the stuff of revolu­tion­ary nightmare. 

Des­pite my assess­ments, seni­or man­age­ment in F2 ensured that the SWP assumed an increas­ingly prom­in­ent role in the work of the branch.  MI5 man­age­ment unre­mit­tingly applied pres­sure to me to beef up the case for the study of the SWP, par­tic­u­larly after its (legit­im­ate) sup­port for a num­ber of indus­tri­al dis­putes in the early nineties, which of course posed no threat to nation­al secur­ity or Par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy.  Des­pite the pres­sure, I still suc­ceeded in ter­min­at­ing the last remain­ing tele­phone tap tar­geted against an indi­vidu­al sub­vers­ive in the UK – Tony Cliff, the SWP’s founder – and drastic­ally redu­cing the num­ber of agents who for dec­ades had been run against the SWP at great cost to the tax­pay­er.  How­ever, seni­or man­agers still insisted that a tele­phone tap stay in place on the party’s HQ.

Even then, F2 policy dic­tated that any indi­vidu­al who atten­ded six or more meet­ings of the Social­ist Work­ers’ Party was record­able as a ‘mem­ber: Trot­sky­ist organ­isa­tion’, even where the ser­vice knew that many indi­vidu­als atten­ded these meet­ings to protest against spe­cif­ic issues such as the NHS cuts or the poll tax, sub­jects of legit­im­ate dissent. 

Failure to transcribe telephone taps

When MI5 took over primacy for the IRA in Octo­ber 1992, a num­ber of tele­phone inter­cept tran­scribers were trans­ferred to the new T Branch sec­tion from F Branch work.  Eng­lish-speak­ing tran­scribers were at a premi­um in T Branch in the service’s work against PIRA.  As a res­ult, F2 simply did not have the resources to tran­scribe the vast amount of intel­li­gence gathered from the inter­cepts on the Social­ist Work­ers’ Party and Mil­it­ant Tend­ency HQs.  There­fore a back­log of untran­scribed tapes built up over sev­er­al months.  Although F2 claimed in its HOW applic­a­tions that these inter­cepts were abso­lutely neces­sary to pro­tect nation­al secur­ity and oth­er demo­crat­ic rights, in 1993 Dir­ect­or F ordered that the untran­scribed tapes be des­troyed without ever being listened to, even though he had insisted on the phone lines being tapped.

If the SWP and MT really had been in the pro­cess of under­min­ing the state, then MI5 would have lost vital intel­li­gence and put the secur­ity of the state at risk.  This was con­firm­a­tion, if any were needed, that the inter­cepts on the SWP and MT were not ‘neces­sary in a demo­cracy’ – they could only be des­troyed pre­cisely because they were unne­ces­sary — and were there­fore unlaw­ful under the European Con­ven­tion of Human Rights (ECHR).  

But the prob­lem was com­poun­ded when MT abol­ished its policy of entry­ism in late 1992.  Since MT’s mem­ber­ship had dwindled to less than a thou­sand and entry­ism with­in the Labour move­ment was MI5’s only legit­im­ate reas­on for invest­ig­at­ing MT, the desk officer, F2B/4, Sarah Knight, recom­men­ded that there was no longer a case to jus­ti­fy the tele­phone and let­ter inter­cept on the party’s HQ.  Her minute went through the man­age­ment chain.  In each case, the line man­ager agreed with her assess­ment until it reached Dir­ect­or F.  He ordered the desk officer to go and ‘make a case’.  Under mild protest, she went off to seek out any nug­gets of intel­li­gence from the mater­i­al that had been tran­scribed.  She then squeezed a case for reval­id­a­tion of the inter­cept war­rant out of it, even where this meant exag­ger­at­ing the import­ance of facts and tak­ing them out of con­text or ‘sex­ing up’, as it is now known.

The Home Sec­ret­ary approved the war­rant in ignor­ance because he simply did not know of the desk officer’s reser­va­tions or, I sus­pect, that months of untran­scribed tapes had been destroyed.

The illegal and unjustified files

On our TC101 induc­tion courses, Dav­id and I were told that MI5 has opened more than a mil­lion Per­son­al Files (PFs).  We were also exhaust­ively taken through case stud­ies of incor­rect iden­ti­fic­a­tion.  If MI5 were 99.9% accur­ate in its work that would still mean that there would be over ten thou­sand files con­tain­ing inform­a­tion that is fac­tu­ally incor­rect.  Of course, no organ­isa­tion is 99.9% accur­ate and the inac­curacies would be spread across a much great­er num­ber of files.  As we had seen on TC101, this was remark­ably easy to do.  This means that there must be tens of thou­sands of files in the MI5 archives which con­tain inac­curacies about Brit­ish cit­izens.  Even where the inform­a­tion is accur­ate, its col­lec­tion and reten­tion is clearly unlaw­ful under the HRA.  After all, the dif­fer­ence between a demo­crat­ic and non-demo­crat­ic or total­it­ari­an state is that legit­im­ate polit­ic­al dis­sent and the pri­vacy of those involved is pro­tec­ted in the former and not in the lat­ter.  Dame Stella Rim­ing­ton has — we have already seen — admit­ted that she thought MI5 was ‘over-enthu­si­ast­ic’ in its tar­get­ing of left-wing act­iv­ists.  Dav­id and I can con­firm that this is the case. 

On one occa­sion, for example, a school­boy had writ­ten to the Com­mun­ist Party ask­ing for inform­a­tion for a top­ic he was pre­par­ing at school.  His let­ter was copied (all mail to the CPGB was copied by MI5) and used to cre­ate a Per­son­al File (PF), where he was iden­ti­fied before being recor­ded as a ‘?com­mun­ist sym­path­iser’.  On anoth­er occa­sion, a man divor­cing his wife had writ­ten to MI5 claim­ing she was involved in com­mun­ism.  For that, his wife got a PF again as a ‘?com­mun­ist sym­path­iser’.  In both cases, the sus­pect only came to the atten­tion of the ser­vice on that one occa­sion.  So why was this inform­a­tion still avail­able to desk officers some twenty years after these indi­vidu­als had first come to atten­tion, in less than sus­pi­cious circumstances?

It is also of enorm­ous con­cern in a demo­cracy that MI5 con­tin­ues to hold private inform­a­tion about our elec­ted rep­res­ent­at­ives, which could be used to influ­ence min­is­ters and MPs in secret.  In Octo­ber 2002, The Mail on Sunday repor­ted that Jack Straw had leaked inform­a­tion in con­nec­tion with the Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott affair when he was PPS to Bar­bara Castle.  As this inform­a­tion also fea­tures in his PF, we have to ask wheth­er it was used to influ­ence the then Home Secretary’s policy towards hear­ing David’s evid­ence, which he has declined to do, and see­ing him pro­sec­uted, which he has endorsed.

Even where MI5 was jus­ti­fied in hold­ing files — as in the case of Vladi­mir Ilych Len­in (PF2) or Leon Trot­sky (PF3) who act­ively worked to under­mine this coun­try — it can­not reas­on­ably argue that it must still keep these files and their con­tents secret.  How­ever, the intel­li­gence ser­vices are so res­ist­ant to scru­tiny that these files remain in the registry of MI5’s new HQ, Thames House, even though the their sub­jects have all been dead for years.  MI5 has claimed that open­ing up these files will reveal sens­it­ive oper­a­tion­al tech­niques.  The use of car­ri­er pigeons perhaps?

In fact, the intel­li­gence agen­cies are in the pecu­li­ar pos­i­tion of not just hold­ing files on indi­vidu­als who no longer pose a notion­al ‘threat’ but hold­ing files even though the actu­al threat itself, such as state com­mun­ism, no longer even exists. 

It can­not be there­fore ‘neces­sary in a demo­cracy’ for the ser­vices to con­tin­ue to hold private inform­a­tion about indi­vidu­als on out­dated files, which are still access­ible to intel­li­gence oper­at­ives.  The grav­ity of this abuse of power is com­poun­ded by the fact that the mater­i­al was unlaw­fully gathered in the first place. 

To com­ply with the con­di­tions of the HRA, MI5 should noti­fy every indi­vidu­al, on whom a file was cre­ated before the passing of the 1989 Secur­ity Ser­vice Act, that they have a right to rem­edy, and there­fore com­pens­a­tion, for: 

  • MI5’s ini­tial unlaw­ful inva­sion of their privacy;
  • any inter­fer­ence with their freedoms, such as being black­lis­ted because of alleged sub­vers­ive sym­path­ies.  There are a num­ber of BBC applic­ants who were affected by this;
  • the service’s con­tin­ued inva­sion of their pri­vacy by retain­ing per­son­al inform­a­tion which could be used against them.

Files on public figures

In the course of my work in F2, I came across many files on media fig­ures, celebrit­ies and prom­in­ent politi­cians, par­tic­u­larly when we were asked to research can­did­ates stand­ing in the 1992 Gen­er­al Elec­tion.  Our job was to sum­mar­ise MI5’s secur­ity his­tory of an indi­vidu­al and assess the threat they might pose to nation­al secur­ity.  F2 man­age­ment then passed the assess­ment and sum­mary — but not the ori­gin­al mater­i­al or file — to the Prime Min­is­ter and the lead­er of the oppos­i­tion.  They would use them when decid­ing on the suit­ab­il­ity of a par­tic­u­lar can­did­ate for gov­ern­ment or the shad­ow cab­in­et.  Because the PM or the lead­er of the oppos­i­tion did not see the raw intel­li­gence or the detail of the secur­ity case against the indi­vidu­al con­cerned, they were in no real pos­i­tion to make an informed assess­ment of that indi­vidu­al.  It was all too easy for the ser­vices to cherry pick intel­li­gence or ‘sex up’ a case by omis­sion, if they didn’t like a pro­spect­ive min­is­ter or thought that his pres­ence in gov­ern­ment might mean that MI5 was more closely scru­tin­ised or held to account.

F2, being tucked away in the little-known MI5 build­ing on Bolton Street off Pic­ca­dilly, was a relaxed sec­tion, with quite an esprit de corps.  Con­sequently, dur­ing our time there Dav­id and I either per­son­ally reviewed or were shown by our col­leagues the fol­low­ing PFs.  Few of those lis­ted actu­ally belong or belonged to sub­vers­ive organ­isa­tions.  Accord­ing to MI5, they have or had ‘sym­path­ies’ with these or oth­er groups and are there­fore worthy of MI5 investigation: 

John Len­non, Jack Straw MP, Ted Heath MP, Tam Dalyell MP, Gareth Peirce (soli­cit­or), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Mike Mans­field (bar­ris­ter), Geof­frey Robertson (bar­ris­ter), Patri­cia Hewitt MP, Har­riet Har­man MP,  Garry Bushell (journ­al­ist), Peter Man­del­son (European com­mis­sion­er), Peter Hain MP, Clare Short MP, Mark Thomas (comedi­an), Mo Mow­lam (politi­cian), Arthur Scar­gill (NUM lead­er, who fam­ously had his own record­ing cat­egory: unaf­fili­ated sub­vers­ive), Neil Kin­nock (politi­cian), Bruce Kent (peace cam­paign­er, )Joan Rud­dock MP, Owen Oyston (busi­ness­man), Cher­ie Booth aka Blair, Tony Blair MP, Dav­id Steel (politi­cian), Teddy Taylor MP, Ron­nie Scott (jazz musi­cian), Robin Cook MP, John Prescott MP, Mark Steel (comedi­an), Jack Cun­ning­ham MP, Mohammed Al Fayed (busi­ness­man), Mick McGa­hey (former uni­on lead­er), Ken Gill (former uni­on lead­er), Michael Foot (politi­cian), Jack Jones (former uni­on lead­er), Ray Bux­ton (former uni­on lead­er), Hugh Scan­lon (former uni­on lead­er), Har­old Wilson (politi­cian), James Callaghan (politi­cian), Richard Norton-Taylor (Guard­i­an journalist).

Dav­id and I also came across a file called: ‘Sub­ver­sion in con­tem­por­ary music’, which con­sisted of press clip­pings about Crass, then a well-known, self-styled ‘anarch­ist’ band; the Sex Pis­tols; and, rather sur­pris­ingly, UB40.  You can almost ima­gine the what’s‑the-country-coming-to? Col­on­el Blimp type, open­ing the file because the Sex Pis­tols per­formed shock­ing songs like ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – the lyr­ics of the song were on the file after being snipped from Time Out magazine — and (their ver­sion of) ‘God Save the Queen’.  But does any reas­on­able per­son believe that the Sex Pis­tols were act­ively try­ing to dam­age nation­al security? 

Unlawful investigation of non-subversives

The ‘sub­ver­sion’ of cab­in­et min­is­ters Har­riet Har­man and Patri­cia Hewitt was to have been lead­ing mem­bers of the Nation­al Coun­cil for Civil Liber­ties (NCCL — now Liberty), the very organ­isa­tion designed to pro­tect us from such unwar­ran­ted abuses of our liber­ties.  At one point, Dav­id came across a series of minutes on a file dat­ing from the early 1980s.  They were writ­ten by Charles Elwell, a pub­licly named and notori­ously para­noid former head of F2 who saw a red under every bed, and who had suc­cess­fully argued that mem­bers of the exec­ut­ive of the NCCL were record­able as ‘sus­pec­ted sym­path­iser: Com­mun­ist’, simply for being mem­bers of the exec­ut­ive.  He based this assump­tion on the fact that, as one or two lead­ing mem­bers of the NCCL had Com­mun­ist sym­path­ies, the organ­isa­tion was there­fore by defin­i­tion a Com­mun­ist front organisation. 

This went bey­ond MI5’s own rules.  It jus­ti­fied its work against legit­im­ate non-sub­vers­ive organ­isa­tions such as trade uni­ons, CND, the NCCL and the Green­ham Com­mon women by say­ing that it was not invest­ig­at­ing these organ­isa­tions or their mem­bers per se but was invest­ig­at­ing sub­vers­ive pen­et­ra­tion of these groups. 

As a res­ult, MI5 gathered ten thick volumes on both the Green­ham women and the Cam­paign for Nuc­le­ar Dis­arm­a­ment.  Inev­it­ably, as a res­ult of this, F2 gathered per­son­al inform­a­tion on and details of legit­im­ate polit­ic­al act­iv­ists, which were passed to min­is­ters in offi­cial Secur­ity Ser­vice reports – then known as Box 500 reports — under the guise of reveal­ing sub­vers­ive pen­et­ra­tion of these organ­isa­tions.  The ser­vice also had a his­tory of gath­er­ing inform­a­tion on trade uni­on activ­ity and indus­tri­al dis­putes on the same basis.  How­ever, it again went bey­ond a strict study of sub­vers­ive activ­ity, and passed inform­a­tion relat­ing to legit­im­ate indus­tri­al protest to min­is­ters and the police.

The decision regard­ing the Exec­ut­ive of the NCCL meant that MI5 could invest­ig­ate an indi­vidu­al — that means tap their phones, fol­low their move­ments, break into their houses, place a bug in their homes — simply for being a mem­ber of the Exec­ut­ive of the NCCL, without hav­ing to estab­lish any oth­er con­nec­tions to com­mun­ism.  This was clearly a breach of demo­crat­ic rights. 

It can­not be ‘neces­sary in a demo­cracy’ to invest­ig­ate the lead­ing mem­bers of an organ­isa­tion charged with uphold­ing demo­crat­ic rights, in the absence of oth­er secur­ity inform­a­tion.  Har­riet Har­man and Patri­cia Hewitt learnt of the infringe­ment of their rights when former MI5 officer Cathy Mas­sit­er blew the whistle on the ser­vices in 1984.  As a res­ult, they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and won because MI5 was not a leg­ally con­sti­tuted and demo­crat­ic­ally account­able organ­isa­tion, the min­im­um stand­ard in a demo­cracy.  It was only as a res­ult of this rul­ing that Par­lia­ment finally put MI5 on a leg­al foot­ing for the first time and made it account­able to min­is­ters in the 1989 Secur­ity Ser­vice Act.


While in F2, I also came across files detail­ing the activ­it­ies of the Uni­ver­sit­ies Research Group.  Although it referred to ‘uni­ver­sit­ies’ it was only con­cerned with the activ­it­ies of alleged com­mun­ists at Cam­bridge and Oxford.  As late as the mid-1980s, MI5 officers were still inter­view­ing indi­vidu­als who had been — or were alleged to have been — mem­bers of the Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Com­mun­ist Party and the Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity Social­ist Party in the 1930s and 1940s, the time that Bur­gess, Philby, Maclean et al were there. 

If the indi­vidu­al could estab­lish he had belonged to the Social­ist Party, he was cleared of sub­vers­ive sus­pi­cion.  Those deemed to have been mem­bers of the Com­mun­ist Party were inter­viewed and recor­ded as ‘mem­ber: sub­vers­ive; com­mun­ist’ and, if they were still work­ing in pub­lic ser­vice or the BBC, had their vet­ting clear­ance secretly with­drawn.  They were then moved to oth­er pos­i­tions, where they had little or no access to sens­it­ive material. 

Con­sid­er­ing the dam­age the Cam­bridge spy ring did to our nation­al secur­ity, it is not sur­pris­ing that MI5 had an interest in any pos­sible ‘fel­low trav­el­lers’.  How­ever, you would have thought that, giv­en the poten­tial grav­ity of the situ­ation, the ser­vice would have treated as a high pri­or­ity the rap­id iden­ti­fic­a­tion of any fur­ther spies from that era.  Instead, MI5 was still invest­ig­at­ing poten­tial sus­pects, many of them retired, in the 1980s.  They were at the end of their careers, and if any had been spies, the dam­age would have been done. 

How MI5 vetoed Wilson’s choice of a Cabinet minister

Anoth­er example of MI5’s abuse of its powers is the case of Judith Hart, a min­is­ter in Har­old Wilson’s gov­ern­ment in the 1970s.  She was refused a par­tic­u­lar min­is­teri­al post because MI5 alleged that she had con­nec­tions with Com­mun­ists.  Hart denied this and the case became a cause célèbre for the left.  Many believed she had been mixed up with anoth­er Judith Hart who was a well-known mem­ber of the Com­mun­ist Party.  In fact, that is what many assert to the present day.

How­ever, the truth is stranger still.  Wilson, ever sus­pi­cious of MI5, asked for fur­ther details of the ‘secret and reli­able source’ which had repor­ted Hart’s con­nec­tions to Com­mun­ism.  MI5 refused, so Wilson told them he was not pre­pared to infringe a minister’s right to pur­sue her career in polit­ics without fur­ther evid­ence.  After a stand-off, the ser­vice reluct­antly agreed to fur­nish Wilson with the raw intel­li­gence in its ori­gin­al form.  This was one of the first and only times that a prime min­is­ter had seen actu­al MI5 intel­li­gence.  (The little which min­is­ters are usu­ally allowed to see is always sum­mar­ised, with sources dis­guised).  The intel­li­gence con­sisted of a couple of tran­scripts of tele­phone taps on the Com­mun­ist Party HQ in King Street.  It estab­lished that Hart had indeed been in con­tact with the CP but only to talk to a friend who worked there.  As Wilson poin­ted out to MI5, this was hardly evid­ence of com­mun­ist sym­pathy or con­nec­tions.  He nev­er­the­less agreed to post Hart to a less sens­it­ive area of government.

Creating bureaucracy: the ‘Traffic Light’ system

As part of our work in F2, Dav­id and I had to review the ‘traffic light’ status of Per­son­al Files (PFs).  In the late 1980s, the ser­vice set up a sys­tem for its files, giv­ing them a green, amber or red card, which dic­tated wheth­er the ser­vice would carry out enquir­ies.  It was largely a bur­eau­crat­ic exer­cise, which did noth­ing to pro­tect civil liber­ties.  In fact, it allowed the ser­vice to main­tain all its files, rather than des­troy­ing them or open­ing them up to pub­lic scru­tiny, after their tar­gets had ceased to be of secur­ity interest.  Red-carded files remained open for inspec­tion by any officer request­ing the file, even though red-card­ing was sup­posed to mean that the file was closed and the tar­get had not come to atten­tion for twenty or thirty years, in some cases. 

The reten­tion of these files also slowed down counter-ter­ror­ist invest­ig­a­tions because, if officers were try­ing to identi­fy, say, Patrick Jones, registry would send them files con­cern­ing every Patrick Jones or P Jones the ser­vice had ever come across.  The desk officer then had to look through these files to ‘clear the trace’ or con­firm that the sub­ject of the file was not identic­al with the sus­pect in the invest­ig­a­tion.  The last thing an officer facing tight invest­ig­at­ive dead­lines needed was to have to plough through files made in the 1940s on the off chance that one of these com­mun­ist tar­gets was the same per­son as an IRA sus­pect, who had recently come to atten­tion.  Inter­est­ingly, Jan Taylor and Patrick Hayes, the two Pro­vi­sion­al IRA mem­bers con­victed of the 1992 bomb­ing of Har­rods, were both well-known to MI5 for their mem­ber­ship of Red Action, a ‘sub­vers­ive’ group which cam­paigned on Irish Repub­lic­an issues.  MI5 nev­er con­sidered them as sus­pects for the bomb­ing.  They were con­victed on the basis of evid­ence gathered by the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Anti-Ter­ror­ist Squad.  I am not cri­ti­cising MI5 with the bene­fit of hind­sight for fail­ing to appre­hend them.  I am merely point­ing out that a sub­vers­ive record means noth­ing in the con­text of ter­ror­ism and is not there­fore a reas­on for retain­ing files on indi­vidu­als with ‘sub­vers­ive’ records, as some officers in MI5 tried to argue.

As part of review the traffic light­ing of files, F2B officers saw some fright­en­ingly ana­chron­ist­ic files.  Dav­id came across a minute on the minute sheet, which recom­men­ded that the tar­get of the file be placed on a cer­tain list because she had been pro­moted to dis­trict organ­iser of the CPGB.  In the event of a state of emer­gency being declared, any­one hold­ing the office of dis­trict organ­iser or above in the Com­mun­ist Party was to be detained without tri­al.  We also saw vet­ting files where indi­vidu­als were denied pro­mo­tion or dis­missed because they were not “the right sort”, or because they had what MI5 called “char­ac­ter defects”.  As late as 1994, MI5 con­sidered homo­sexu­al­ity, debt and promis­cu­ity as evid­ence of a defect­ive character.

Failure with IT

Des­pite the massive reduc­tion in the per­ceived threat from sub­ver­sion at this time, MI5 per­sisted in devel­op­ing a new nation­al data­base of ‘sub­vers­ives’ in the UK.  The com­puter sys­tem, Hawk, had been under devel­op­ment for a num­ber of years by the time I joined F2.  As with all MI5 sys­tems, it was an in-house devel­op­ment designed at vast expense by tech­ni­cians who could not find employ­ment in the more luc­rat­ive com­mer­cial sec­tor and over­seen by an intel­li­gence officer who resen­ted being pos­ted away from a more main­stream line of work.  It was ana­chron­ist­ic before it even came online in 1992.  How­ever, F2 man­age­ment still insisted that cler­ic­al work­ers spend valu­able man-hours input­ting irrel­ev­ant data to jus­ti­fy Hawk’s development. 

Of course, when the study of sub­ver­sion was even­tu­ally shut down in 1996 it became appar­ent that the tech­no­logy of Hawk was too out of date to be trans­ferred to oth­er sec­tions in MI5.  This was a pat­tern which could be seen in MI5’s IT strategy across the service. 

Class War and the Communist Party

David’s main area of respons­ib­il­ity in F2 was for the anarch­ist group Class War and the rump of the Com­mun­ist Party, which had decided to plug on with Marx­ism-Len­in­ism, after the rest of the CPGB had renounced it and become the Demo­crat­ic Left.  He was sur­prised that MI5 still devoted such extens­ive resources to these groups.  Dur­ing recruit­ment, he had been told that MI5 was no longer look­ing in any great depth at sub­vers­ives.  MI5 lore had it that the study of Class War was beefed up in the wake of the Poll Tax riot in Lon­don in 1990, after the group’s posters and ban­ners were seen on the news cov­er­age.  How­ever, accord­ing to Spe­cial Branch officers, the viol­ence in Tra­fal­gar Square had star­ted when front-line anti-riot police had lost con­trol and turned on the demonstrators.

By early 1992, Class War was a dis­or­gan­ised col­lec­tion of around 200 anarch­ist indi­vidu­als.  As such, it posed no real threat to Par­lia­ment­ary demo­cracy or nation­al secur­ity.  F2 had no phone inter­cept on Class War because it did not have an HQ.  How­ever, the author­it­ies did devote con­sid­er­able resources to the group. 

Some years before Dav­id had joined F2, a Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Duties Sec­tion (SDS) agent, code­named M2589, had pen­et­rated Class War.  Unlike the vast major­ity of agents recruited by MI5, he was not a mem­ber of an organ­isa­tion who had been ‘turned’ by the ser­vice.  He was a full-time police­man from Spe­cial Branch under deep cov­er.  For six days a week, he lived, ate and breathed the life of a class war­ri­or before return­ing to his nor­mal life with friends and fam­ily for a day. Wheth­er Class War mer­ited this kind of resource intens­ive cov­er­age is open to debate.  I quote David:

When I met M2589 in Feb­ru­ary 1992, at a safe house in Lon­don, it was quite obvi­ous that this pecu­li­ar arrange­ment had affected the agent psy­cho­lo­gic­ally.  After around four years of pre­tend­ing to be an anarch­ist, he had clearly become one.  To use the ser­vice jar­gon, he had gone nat­ive.  He drank about six cans of Spe­cial Brew dur­ing the debrief, and regaled us with stor­ies about beat­ing up uni­formed officers as part of his ‘cov­er’.  Partly as a res­ult, he was ‘ter­min­ated’ after the 1992 Gen­er­al Elec­tion.  Without his organ­isa­tion­al skills, Class War fell apart.” 

Did the agent make Class War more effect­ive while he was there?  In oth­er words, did the state actu­ally provide resources, which con­trib­uted to the spread of anarchism?

Anoth­er anarch­ist source was run by Daphne.  It is doubt­ful wheth­er any use­ful inform­a­tion ever came from him, as Daphne spent most of her time act­ing as his coun­sel­lor cum ther­ap­ist, sort­ing out prob­lems with his rent, his girl­friends and even hav­ing to get worm pills for his dog. 

After the 1992 Gen­er­al Elec­tion, Dav­id car­ried out two research pro­jects into Class War and the Com­mun­ist Party of Bri­tain (CPB), which I read after he had left the sec­tion because I had taken over the study of the former group.  David’s research had clearly estab­lished that Class War was moribund and recom­men­ded that M2589 was not replaced.  In prac­tice, this meant that MI5 kept only a ‘watch­ing brief’ over the group.  Dav­id came to the same con­clu­sions regard­ing the CPB.  It had few­er than 1,000 mem­bers, half of whom were over 65.  He recom­men­ded the ter­min­a­tion of agent M148, who had been report­ing on com­mun­ists for thirty years.  M148 had spent nearly his entire work­ing life as an agent. 

F2/0, Paul Slough praised Dav­id for this work after he left the sec­tion, accept­ing all his recom­mend­a­tions, although I later found that a col­league still in F2, Sarah Knight, had been tasked to copy out his assess­ments word for word.  She explained that although David’s work was a thor­ough, accur­ate and per­tin­ent research pro­ject — and his recom­mend­a­tions had been accep­ted — it was felt that he was too new to the ser­vice to com­mand the neces­sary author­ity in his assess­ments.  His work was there­fore copied, but presen­ted as her work as she had been in the ser­vice longer.

Dav­id says:

It was extremely frus­trat­ing not being cred­ited for good work.  The Class War research paper did though have a funny side.  When I first read the typed draft of the paper I came across the line: ‘Class War sees the women’s move­ment as clit­ist’.  Think­ing I had take leave of my senses, I checked it against my hand­writ­ten ver­sion, which said: ‘Class War sees the women’s move­ment as élit­ist’.  God knows what my sec­ret­ary, an inno­cent 18-year-old from Essex, thought I was try­ing to say.”

Just before Dav­id left F2, he played an anarch­ist in a police agent run­ning exer­cise.  He was so con­vin­cing that a uni­formed police officer out­side Char­ing Cross sta­tion moved him on, mak­ing the exer­cise more of a chal­lenge to the train­ee.  On his return to his Bolton Street office, one of the older officers remarked that he had “now seen everything – a mem­ber of the officer class wear­ing an ear-ring” after catch­ing sight of David’s ear-ring which had been re-inser­ted purely for the role play.

Preparations for Provisional IRA (PIRA) primacy

In 1991 and early 1992 expect­a­tions had been high with­in the ser­vice that it would be giv­en the lead respons­ib­il­ity for the invest­ig­a­tion of the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA (PIRA) on the UK main­land.  Tra­di­tion­ally the Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Spe­cial Branch (MPSB) had the lead and MI5 merely acted in sup­port.  In order to ensure that enough officers would be avail­able to form the new sec­tion, T2, when primacy was handed to MI5, oth­er sec­tions of MI5 had their staff quotas arti­fi­cially inflated, par­tic­u­larly in the counter-espi­on­age K branch and counter-sub­ver­sion F branch. 

How­ever, dir­ect­ors’ and assist­ant dir­ect­ors’ prestige with­in the ser­vice relied on their staff num­bers.  So when the call came from the newly formed T2, some seni­or man­agers refused to allow their staff to be pos­ted else­where.  Even though T2 was des­per­ately stretched, dir­ect­ors of oth­er branches reg­u­larly turned down requests for help even in the form of tem­por­ary secondments. 

In May 1992, Home Sec­ret­ary Ken­neth Clarke finally announced to Par­lia­ment that MI5 was tak­ing over PIRA invest­ig­a­tions in Bri­tain, bring­ing to an end MPSB’s 106-year lead respons­ib­il­ity for Irish Repub­lic­an mat­ters.  MI5 officers were informed of the decision over the office tan­noy, as part of an office13 secur­ity announce­ment.  Journ­al­ists look­ing for a quote, it told us, might door­step us as we left the build­ing because MI5 had been awar­ded primacy. 

As the Pro­vi­sion­al IRA were at this time reg­u­larly car­ry­ing out bomb­ings and endan­ger­ing the lives of Brit­ish cit­izens, it was no longer a pro­por­tion­al – or, indeed, sane – response to con­tin­ue to deploy vital resources like tele­phone tap­ping against Trot­sky­ists rather than ter­ror­ists.  The ser­vice con­veni­ently decided that that sub­ver­sion no longer posed the same ser­i­ous threat as it had less than a year before – exactly what we desk officers had been arguing.  In August 1992, just nine months after join­ing the ser­vice, Dav­id was pos­ted to T2A

Even though my two years as F2B/5 were up by Feb­ru­ary 1993, and I had received a per­form­ance related bonus and pro­mo­tion, Dir­ect­or F turned down a request for my trans­fer from one of T2’s seni­or man­agers because he had already seen his empire shrink too much.  I finally joined T5E, study­ing Irish ter­ror­ist logist­ics, in August 1993.

David’s and my exper­i­ences in F2 had opened our eyes to state abuses of power, which most recruits in the 1990s just did not see.  These ranged from the con­tinu­ing and unlaw­ful exist­ence of files made before 1989, through the absurd files made on the basis of little secur­ity inform­a­tion, to the reten­tion of deeply embar­rass­ing per­son­al mater­i­al on influ­en­tial fig­ures.  Both Dav­id and I hoped that this work now belonged to anoth­er era and that MI5 was finally ceas­ing such con­ten­tious oper­a­tions.  In the con­text of sub­ver­sion, it all begged the question: 

In the 1980s, who really was the Enemy Within?” 

Was it the miners strug­gling to pro­tect their jobs and com­munit­ies?  Or polit­ic­al act­iv­ists hold­ing meet­ings, peace demon­stra­tions and stand­ing in elec­tions?  Or was it the state, with its undemo­crat­ic, unac­count­able, law-break­ing secret spies?